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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Venezuela celebrating one of its MLB heroes, not for the first time

DETROIT — You might be able to criticize the term “World Series,” since — aside from Canada — no countries other than the United States are represented by teams. 

But you can’t argue that no other countries are represented at all, since there are a record 20 foreign-born players participating.

As always, this World Series is a huge hit in Latin America — where all 20 of those players originated — particularly in Venezuela, where Pablo Sandoval’s Game 1 exploits provided a continuation of what’s been a year-long baseball celebration.

Wednesday night, Sandoval became the first player to hit three home runs in his first three at-bats of any World Series game, and just the fourth to ever hit three overall. Thursday morning, his phone blew up with congratulations from friends around the world, many from his native Venezuela.

“Three hundred text messages, man — 300. So excited how the people watched pay attention to all the things in the game, all my friends back home, family, just excited to be part of this,” Sandoval said in a press conference Thursday afternoon, before Game 2 of the series. “You know, I still can’t believe it. In the morning when I wake up, all the stuff, my friends keep texting me. But you know, you have to realize what’s going on right now in your life, so you have to keep your head up and keep focused.”

It’s got to be hard to do that, though, when your country’s president is tweeting about your exploits, as they happen.

That’s going to make it an interesting trip home to Venezuela in the offseason for Sandoval, among others.

“I don’t know, man. It’s going to be a big deal. Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown, myself hitting three homers in the World Series. It’s a big deal. The President (Hugo Chavez) sent me a tweet yesterday. I still can’t believe it,” Sandoval said, admitting he’d never met the man. “No, he put a tweet on the three home runs. But when I was hitting the fourth at‑bat, he was like, ‘I’m just going to say congratulations to Pablo, but I’m just going to see the four homers right now.’ So that was funny.”

Even Cabrera was wowed.

“Unbelievable night. Unbelievable night,” the Tigers’ slugger said.

It’s not the first thing Venezuelans have had to celebrate this baseball season — or ever. The country has a rich history of sending players to the big leagues to do big things. 

Cabrera won the first Triple Crown in 45 years, becoming the first Latin American player to claim the distinction.

“I know my country was watching and I appreciate all of the support,” Cabrera said the night he clinched it in Kansas City. “This is a special moment for all us, not just a personal moment. It’s an emotional day for all of us. I still can’t believe it happened.”
He hit his 300th home run in July, becoming just the second Venezuelan — after Andres Galarraga — to accomplish that feat. 

• Magglio Ordonez won the 2007 American League batting title, the first Tigers hitter in 46 years to accomplish that, the first since Norm Cash in 1961. He was the second Venezuelan to win a league batting title, following Galarraga (1993, NL). Colorado’s Carlos Gonzalez (2010, NL) and Cabrera (2011-12, AL) have since joined the duo. 

• Ozzie Guillen, ousted this week as manager of the Miami Marlins, was the first Latino manager to lead a team to the World Series championship, guiding the White Sox to the 2005 crown.

“I’ll be happy for all things happening to Venezuelan players right now, happening in all the careers of the Venezuelans in the Big Leagues; Omar (Vizquel), all those guys, Andres. I’m just excited what we do this year, (Johan) Santana starting with a no‑hitter, following with a perfect game, Cabrera following the Triple Crown and me, excited how we’re working hard to get all these things together,” Sandoval said. “You have to realize in your life, you have to be happy for all the work you do to get here.”

Venezuela and the Dominican Republic both have sent nine players each to this World Series.

Gregor Blanco, Jose Mijares, Hector Sanchez, Marco Scutaro and Sandoval of the Giants are from Venezuela, as are the Tigers’ Cabrera, Avisail Garcia, Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez. Six Tigers (Al Alburquerque, Jhonny Peralta, Joaquin Benoit, Ramon Santiago, Jose Valverde, Octavio Dotel) are from the Dominican Republic, as are three Giants (Joaquin Arias, Santiago Casilla, Guillermo Mota).

Both managers have seen those pipelines first-hand from the other end.

The Tigers’ Jim Leyland managed in Venezuela for a time, while the Giants’ Bruce Bochy played there.

“Well, I spent three years playing winter baseball down there, and they love the game. They have just a great passion for baseball. As far as I know, I’m pretty sure it is their national sport there. There’s some great players that have come out of Venezuela. So I’m not surprised to see that many players here in the World Series that are just great players and have played the game all their life,” Bochy said.

“They play the game in their country probably similar to how we played it here 50, 60 years ago. They all played as kids growing up. You drive around the country and you see them playing sandlot baseball. That’s why I think we’re seeing so many players, not just from Venezuela but from Latin America, because of how much they play as kids.”

Leyland has seen the same thing.

“Well, I just think it starts when they’re so young over there. That’s what they do over there. It seems like if you’re a young boy in Venezuela you play baseball; that’s what you do. We’ve been very fortunate, and I think if you look at baseball all around, the Latin countries ARE putting a lot of players in the Major Leagues in this day and age,” the Tigers’ manager said. “We’re very fortunate. Certainly we have some very good ones and we have had in the past. ... I think that the influx of the Latin players has been very important for Major League Baseball.”

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